Attachment, Nietzsche, Spirit, Soul, and Ego (8/30/12)

The deeper and more tenacious our attachments to material, sensual, emotional, and ideological forms/experiences, the harder it will be, naturally, to surrender to the ‘evolutionary’ impulse of spirit, for this powerful impulse points in the opposite direction from those attachments. The attachments act like durable cords binding us to all manner of phenomena and experiences in the ‘three worlds’ (physical, emotional, intellectual), and the spirit points away from these familiar harbors. As incarnate human beings, we are perhaps naturally disposed to equate these attachments (and the kind of experience that these attachments immerse us in) with life itself. Consequently, surrendering to the spirit is almost inevitably experienced as a virtual death of the personality—the ego-personality that we have long assumed to be our authentic and substantial self or true identity. Surrender to the spirit ultimately reveals this assumption to be only a half-truth. It is only half-true because there appears to be a deeper, subtler root of selfhood that is not synonymous with egoity, or the sense of separate ‘I-consciousness.’ From the standpoint of the immaterial, spiritual self, the ego (and even the body, which in some respects is correlative with ego-consciousness) functions almost as a kind of ‘mask’—a kind of projected identity or actor on the stage of temporal and phenomenal affairs. From the standpoint of the silent, meditating spirit that disinterestedly beholds this long-running stage play (that we are cast in as long as we function as ‘normal’ human beings), the phenomenal world is little more than a ‘coagulated dream.’ It is a kind of movie or epic story that can sometimes be thoroughly captivating and absorbing, while at others times it appears to be futile, a kind of sham or trick, an ‘eternal recurrence of the same,’ as Nietzsche put it.

It is perhaps also worth noting that Nietzsche seems to have consistently believed that the spiritual dimension was itself merely an illusion or a lie fabricated by priests to manage and ‘pastor’ the ignorant and the resentful, and that there was no real possibility of transcending the phenomenal realm—the ‘realm of appearances’—except via death, which is not so much transcendence as extermination. Perhaps as a consequence of a profound religious crisis suffered as a young man, Nietzsche seems to have consciously and irreversibly rejected the idea of the spirit as a transcendent—but nevertheless real and truly experienceable—dimension.[1] Perhaps, as he came to see all things and all processes ultimately in terms of power, he gradually closed himself off from the possibility of making fundamental sense of experience in any other terms. This is most unfortunate when it comes to making some kind of sense of spirit, since the surrender to the spirit-impulse within us is, at the same time, a kind of relinquishment of all power claims within the stage play of phenomenal, ordinary human experience, as mystics and saints from all traditions have attested. Since power remained paramount for Nietzsche—both as a force or energy to be sought for its own sake and as a kind of heuristic or explanatory principle for making ultimate sense of everything—his philosophical legacy is a rhetorically brilliant, but one-sided assault upon the spirit, which, again, he regarded as no more than a hollow ideal, a delusion clung to by powerless (and/or manipulative) people.[2] Nietzsche’s philosophy is perhaps the most eloquent presentation of materialistic metaphysical assumptions—a worldview that reached its cultural zenith in the 19th Century. Former materialists from both the ancient and modern eras (Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Hobbes, Bacon, Gassendi, d’Holbach, Marx, etc.) strike us as crude and fumbling ‘innocents’ compared to Nietzsche, who deliberately and almost ‘religiously’ struggled to close off every possible ‘escape route’ into the ‘nothingness’ of the sham spirit world.

A close and thorough study of Nietzsche’s spellbinding writings reveals that his is, by far, the most seductive and persuasive voice ever to speak out on behalf of the involutionary arc—the thrust into concrete, flesh-and-blood existence and into the agon of contending, embattled human egos.[3] The Iliad is probably his favorite depiction of the ‘noble’ game as it should be played—but I am now fairly certain that Nietzsche missed the whole point that Homer was trying to get across in that timeless story. Perhaps the closest likeness to Nietzsche that we find in Homer is to be found in book eleven of the Odyssey, when Odysseus visits the underworld and hears the words of Achilles’ shade:

Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils. Better, I say, to break the sod as farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than to lord it over all the exhausted dead.

No wonder Nietzsche constructed strong and elaborate defenses against the spirit. It seems likely that he suffered an actual encounter with it and it had the dual effect of inflating him and scaring the hell out of him—as seems to have been the case with a number of ‘inspired’ men and women, including none other than Carl Jung, who appears to have been slightly better prepared to navigate through the paralyzing and mentally destabilizing paradoxes that appear to accompany numinous experiences. As it turns out, these torturous paradoxes, which are often experienced as menacing and threatening factors when the initial ‘infection’ occurs, eventually metamorphose into antibodies or a kind of psychic auto-immune system that can protect us against…against what? Against ‘personal ego’ obliteration. Against insanity. Against crippling nihilism. The paradoxes, under favorable internal conditions, become the very seeds out of which soul, the ‘third’ factor, is born. Soul, of course, is the middle principle between spirit and concrete, literal consciousness (ego-consciousness). Its distinctive features are the image, the symbol, and the metaphor. As a kind of psychic platform or perspective situated between spirit and ego (or literal consciousness), it is a kind of hybrid that partakes of both spirit and matter. Hence the paradoxicality that is fundamental to soul and to ‘anima consciousness.’ It is an ‘as-if’ mode of consciousness, experience, and manner of interpreting events—a mode well known, of course, to authentic poets to mystics, alchemists, visionaries, and (more recently) to genuine archetypal psychologists. I will employ an ‘as-if’ formulation in an effort to illustrate Nietzsche’s little-reported horror of the spirit—a horror that seems to have compelled him to take an uncharacteristically dogmatic, defensive stand for ego (will to power) and for (a subtle but inevitably reductive form of) materialism as an ultimate explanatory principle.

We might say that the impact of unadulterated spirit upon the typical human ego is analogous to the encounter between a particle of matter and a particle of anti-matter, or between a positively charged ion and a negatively charged one. In the encounter between matter and anti-matter, both are obliterated—at least, according to current theory. A kind of neutralization occurs—and in the case of the ego, this experience is horrifyingly deflationary, from one angle, while from another, it is liberating, releasing, and indescribably pleasant.[4]

What seems to make the crucial difference between a salutary and a lamentable outcome in this encounter is which ‘factor’ the experiencer is most allied with, consciously. If he is identified chiefly with the ego the experience will more likely be crushing and annihilating (because the spirit exposes the utter puniness and frightening fragility of the ego and all that it is attached to), and if he identifies wholly with the spirit, he will almost certainly suffer a dangerous inflation. Neither of these outcomes is desirable or psychologically healthy. If, on the other hand, there is some soul development, there is a good chance that the disturbing and ‘animating’ experience can be assimilated imaginatively or metaphorically, and not merely literally or pneumatically.

[1] An account by Ida Overbeck, the wife of Nietzsche’s close friend, Franz Overbeck, is helpful here. He was on the most intimate terms with both husband and wife and was often a guest in their home: “I had told Nietzsche earlier that the Christian religion could not give me solace and fulfillment and that I had in me the thought and feeling of carrying in everything the fate of all mankind. I dared to say it: the idea of God contained too little reality for me. Deeply moved, he answered: ‘You are saying this only to come to my aid; never give up this idea! You have it unconsciously; for as I know you and find you, including now, one great thought dominates your life. This great thought is the idea of God.’ He swallowed painfully. His features were completely contorted with emotion, until they then took on a stony calm. ‘I have given him up, I want to make something new, I will not and must not go back. I will perish from my passions, they will cast me back and forth; I am constantly falling apart, but I do not care.’ These are his own words from the fall of 1882!” (Conversations with Nietzsche; Sander Gilman, editor, p. 145)

[2] Nietzsche employs the word ‘spirit’ frequently, but with this term he seems to be referring to spiritedness, what the Greeks call ‘thumos.’

[3] However, it cannot, in all fairness, be said that he lived as he wrote, since—plagued with chronic health problems—he was forced to live the life of a virtual ascetic, moving solitarily from one boarding house to another in northern Italy and southern France, after retiring (for health reasons) at the age of 35 from his professorship at the University of Basel. Lonely, sickly, unmarried, and surviving on a modest pension, Nietzsche’s life was lived, especially throughout his last years before his mental collapse at the age of forty-five, in his head.

[4] Not to be flippant, but merely for the sake of illustration: the comparison with an organism seems apt here. The ‘neutralization’ corresponds with the climactic discharge of pent-up sexual force, which is accompanied by a burst of pleasure and a feeling of great contentment. Horror and/or delight may come a short time afterwards when it is learned that pregnancy resulted from the deed and henceforth one’s life will no longer be one’s own! Something roughly analogous occurs when we are impregnated by the (holy) spirit. But then, Nietzsche and Freud would have insisted that Joseph was the real father (in one famous case of questionable insemination).


East and West: Sober Reflections (4/11/14)

Ronald Schenk, in his terse reply to a question I posed by email (concerning Jung’s and Hillman’s ‘mistrust’ of the Indian psyche) said: ‘Jung and Hillman were both influenced by Indian thought, but both felt it was problematic for Westerners to identify with it, thereby creating a ‘shadow’ of factors that are part of the Western psyche but not included by the East.’

Now, I agree that there is some truth here, but I’m not quite sure it redounds to the credit of the Western psyche—which, on the whole, may be rather more insane and out of alignment with inner reality than the (traditional) Eastern one is.

The formative influences of Christianity, rational philosophy, humanism, republicanism, and the ‘rights of man’ have all contributed to the actual (or purported) sanctity of the individual in the West—while the more ‘collectivist’ East lags behind in its very different regard for the ‘autonomous’ individual. And while no one can deny that a goodly number of humane principles and morally enlightened practices have emerged (in the West) from this more respectful stance towards the individual, this same individualism is inseparably bound up with a slew of collective ills that now threaten to do us in—both culturally and with respect to our natural environment, which is rapidly being compromised and gobbled up by the reckless, unbridled collective appetites of devouring consumers. An honest analysis of the modern ‘individual’ in the West is more likely to reveal an amalgam of generally unfettered, irrational habits, cravings, and compulsions (that demand instant gratification) than the self-controlled, liberally educated, rationally reflective citizen enthusiastically idealized by the founders of modern democracies.

Since the mindless consumer appears to be the rather unpromising and depressing creature in which Western individualism has culminated—the rationally calculating, politically impotent, narrowly-educated conscript, serving a desire-propelled corporate-capitalist economy—we have reason to pause before deeming this a real advance over the more communitarian arrangement of the pre-modern scheme, where the energies, lusts, and personal ambitions of the ordinary human being were, for the most part, suppressed and subordinated to the comparatively restricted needs and the cohesiveness of the larger group—and to the cultural-political elites who lived off this collective labor and sacrifice. The unleashing and the aggressive stimulation of these energies, lusts, and personal ambitions in the modern West has led, unsurprisingly, to evident cultural decline and fragmentation, the evils of colonialism, obscene over-consumption and waste, the ominous ascendency of what Nietzsche famously dubbed ‘the Last Man’—a shallow, frothy, short-sighted creature who is obsessed with his own material and psychological comfort—and sees nothing wrong or ignoble about this.

It is my perception that the East—particularly Indian spiritual teachings, and to a slightly lesser extent, Chinese Taoism and Japanese Zen Buddhism—has something of vital, if not absolutely crucial, importance to offer us here in the West. This perception is founded upon two firm convictions that have come from years of experience, study, travel, and reflection:

  1. The present (and all but unchallenged) scheme in the West almost exclusively promotes personal/collective competition for (limited) material goods and for (personal) power within one’s sphere of (worldly) action.
  2. Unbridled self-interest is the principal source of evil and misery in the world—and the greatest obstacle to spiritual enlightenment and liberation. On a collective scale, aided by modern technology, it constitutes nothing less than a gargantuan pair of jaws, ceaselessly devouring human souls, natural resources, and the future of our own and other species.

It may be the case that from our ‘enlightened,’ ‘sophisticated,’ ‘liberated,’ point of view, the East seems ‘backwards’ and crude, but our forward-rushing, reckless momentum is hurtling all of us into a whole series of walls and barriers that a few of our more alert observers can clearly see directly ahead of us. If going ‘backwards’ is unthinkable—not even an option—then at least we might consider the value of slowing down, of tempering our acquisitiveness, of quieting our compulsive urges and habits, of separating ourselves from the mindless herd. There may be comfort in numbers, but that comfort will vanish as soon as those in the front begin colliding with the walls and are crushed to death by the stampeding skittish simpletons behind them—all those ‘liberated’ goats and sheep who lacked the courage to stray, alone, from the group, from which vantage point they might have clearly discerned the trouble looming ahead. Perhaps for some goats and sheep, mass suicide is preferable to solitary salvation or survival. Who knows what goes on—and doesn’t go on—in the minds of goats and sheep once they get up a full head of steam as a rutting, glutting group? We must leave them in ‘God’s’ hands. Since ‘He’ made them, they are His responsibility and we must not lose heart in dire ruminations about the outcome of the dismal stampede that is so clearly shaping up—clear to anyone with an honest pair of eyes, or even one BIG EYE. Our pity—or, conversely, our outrage and resentment—must be superseded and kept under strict watch, lest we become paralyzed on the sidelines—and miss our (slim) chance of being rescued from our own very different collision with a dead-end.

Assuming we have successfully extricated our solitary souls from the mindless, ‘possessed and enthralled’ mass of self-styled ‘individuals’—and from those positive and negative attachments that prevent the transcendence of egocentricity—what next?

In the unlikely event that my critical assessment of Western ‘individualism’ (or at least its American version, which I have observed with anxious concern and care for many years) has escaped the reader, let me pronounce bluntly: ‘Individualism’ has been thoroughly and systematically debased into an empty concept—a vacuous label signifying nothing—all style and no substance—in this mass culture we presently inhabit. The actual courage, intellectual honesty, and discrimination that are the basic requirements for becoming an authentic individual are becoming harder and harder to find. The cultural soil here is simply too depleted, the air too toxic, and the rainfall too scarce to support more than a few wild and anomalous growths, here and there. And such anomalies typically have the good sense to stay well out of the crass (and, by turns, sentimental and cynical) public spotlight, so that few of us have heard of them. Wide public engagement and activity, while it may nurture mere talent—and even certain forms of genius—often spells doom for genuine individuality, which bears a resemblance to a snowflake exposed to the merciless glare of the afternoon sun. First, the glare effaces the intricate and subtle crystalline detail-work, before reducing it to a micro-puddle of featureless non-identity.

And yet, this stage—of the genuine, self-standing, critically discriminating individual—must be heroically achieved and moved through before being sacrificed in the ‘metamorphosis’ that leads to the Self—i.e., beyond confinement to the personal, individualized ego. There is no skipping over this lonely and usually excruciating baptism by fire and into the crucifixion experience of release from ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’ It is harder for the bloated, inflated, puddin’-headed mass man to shrink into the modest, psychologically honest, thoroughly conscious individual (who is capable of slithering through the eye of the needle into the blissful serenity of the Self) than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Both the mass man and the amasser of excessive personal wealth are facing in the wrong direction—in the exact opposite direction from the Self—which is to be found, if at all, in the silent, inner world, not in the noisy, fast-paced, mundane one.

Holding Hands (8/23/13)

I am at last facing the consequences of my insistent burrowing, deviating, unmasking, and inverting. As I distance myself more and more fatefully and irreversibly from the encircled hearth of normality, instead of feeling nostalgia and warm affection for the tired old stories being swapped and lovingly preserved by those who are gathered around the campfire, I feel more and more humbly-proudly alone, more and more firmly resolved never to scurry back to my forfeited seat within that enchanted circle.

The more intensely conscious we become of our actual existential predicament, the sharper and more penetrating will be our awareness of the inability of even our boon companions to muffle or silence our spiritual uncertainties and anxieties. Even if one or two of them can actually follow us into the enveloping murk that awaits anyone who ventures off from that cozy campfire flickering in the wilderness, what more can these ‘allies’ do but hold our trembling hand? I don’t mean, here, to dismiss altogether the value of having such hands to hold in the dark. I merely mean to take the honest measure of such alliances. Their ultimate powerlessness against that darkness should dispel any illusions that we cling to in this regard, for these illusions are no remedy against it.

The big, rough, but generally reliable ‘hands’ of normality have evolved over the millennia as a protection—not against the mysterious darkness, per se, for which there is no genuine antidote—but against acute consciousness of that darkness, that inscrutable mystery, that Medusa whose direct gaze turns heroes into stone (and the unheroic into hollowed-out zombies). The groping, too-familiar hands of normality that hold the many snugly within their incestuous grip—these hands are what the few are up against if it is desired above all else to be released from the shameful stupor that their stifling embrace induces. Those who would be free of the stupefying, deforming grip of the giant, warty hands of the normal are certainly not big enough or strong enough to compel the normal to release them. Rather, it is their very smallness and their uncommon lack of rigidity that enables them to slither through the tiny openings between the gargantuan fingers of the colossal hands of the normal.

What then? Do we not at once plummet to our deaths—or worse, into insanity? Isn’t this wish to wriggle free from the big stinky hands of the normal a kind of death wish? It certainly can be—and if one’s despair is so overwhelming that nothing but extinction will suffice, then that is always an option: eternal sleep for those who have abruptly awakened from the stuporous suffocating dream induced by the oafish, smelly hands of the normal. Such persons cannot bear to stay awake but they have too much inflexible pride to return to the stupefying dream.

But what happens to those of us who recklessly and defiantly choose to stay awake, as we unblinkingly strive to wriggle like slender snakes through the narrow chinks between those thick clumsy fingers? Once we manage, miraculously, to slither through these tiny passageways—uncertain as to what will befall us as we cross over into terra incognita, or the ab-normal—do we simply keep falling or can we survive out there in the darkness and the cold?

What we learn is that the sheer enormity of the hands of the normal produces a gravitational field beyond which we are prevented from drifting. Although we have been freed up from the suffocating grip of the hands of the normal, we are nonetheless bound within an orbital path that encircles the hands. Everyone we have known or loved is still snugly enclosed within the tight grasp of those enormous hands. A gap now exists between us and them that cannot be closed without wreaking havoc for those below. The very real darkness we carry is to their false light what a particle of antimatter is to an ordinary atom. We must henceforth maintain a ‘polite’ distance from one another. Just the right distance and there is the spark born of creative tension. If we get too close, we cancel each other out in a puff of smoke.

Once we are in orbit around the hands that hold our fellows securely in place, the game has decisively changed for us. Our position in orbit affords us a clear, synoptic view, both of the hands of the normal and of the myriad constellations that twinkle in the remote reaches of the vast surrounding darkness. Such vision is our partial compensation for the isolation we are now consigned to after slithering like snakes through the narrow gaps between the colossal fingers of the gargantuan hands of the normal.

From time to time—as lonely satellites—we pick up cryptic transmissions from the distant reaches of the ineffable cosmos enveloping us—and we work diligently and solitarily, like a Kepler or a Heraclitus, to decode them.




Individuation as the Middle Way (4/21/17)

I woke up this morning with an ominous feeling that something wants to be born through my pen – and soon. Accompanying this weighty sensation is an exceptionally strong feeling of my personal insignificance and transience compared to the tiny handful of interesting ideas and perspectives I am charged with “birthing” in speech.

Perhaps in this instance it is the overwhelming feeling of smallness and ephemerality that is the content inviting exploration and expression here – at least, initially. I am aware of the psychological fact, I might add, that this same intense feeling of portentousness and gravitas has frequently attended the displacement of my ordinary (personal) ego-consciousness by the much deeper and weightier awareness of the daimon who shares ownership of this body, brain, and set of faculties that go by the name of “Paul.” In the past, before a clearer conscious differentiation between these two very distinct centers of gravity had been established, the anxiety level would be higher during such transitions. This was due, in part, to the fear that accompanies ignorance of the inner process of displacement – or the powerful shift that occurs when I would be pulled down into those heavy-murky depths. In the past, my ego would understandably react in a defensive or self-protective manner. It felt threatened by the very real prospect of drowning. But the resistances it put up only made the inevitable descent more violent and jarring.

Over the years I have learned how to yield to the pull of the daimon with fewer resistances – thus making my descents smoother and faster. I now understand better the crucial part employed by the sensation of the “annihilation” or near-total eclipse of the ego’s sense of personal importance as a prelude or preliminary stage in the descent process. It is my strong suspicion that this semi-paralyzing, annihilating energy/perspective is directed (like a blast from a stun gun) from the daimonic depths up to the shallows where, like a sunfish or jellyfish, my personal ego darts or floats about. As the ego-vessel is temporarily stunned – it is lured down into the depths where it can be usefully employed as a kind of portal or mouthpiece for daimonic perspectives, directives, and ideas. In fact, that is what is underway at this moment – as I have allowed my mind and obedient pen to sink down to “earshot range” of the deeper intelligence within.

It should be mentioned that as I surrender to the descent, the initial feelings of nervousness and trepidation begin to subside. This calming comes from the fact that the new center of gravity (of the daimon) is being contacted and stably inhabited. The anxious feelings correspond to the “in between” or transitional state: prior to my consciousness becoming stably situated in the deeper center of gravity while it is no longer anchored in the familiar personal ego perspective.

Now, such a description must necessarily strike some readers as a species of mental illness or a dangerous psychic condition. And, no doubt, this experience of being uprooted or dislodged from the personal ego-complex is typically observed in schizophrenics or those suffering from multiple personality disorder. The difference between what I experience (and which I am attempting to describe) and what the “mentally ill” person experiences must be thoroughly explored and clarified – to the extent that I am equipped to undertake such a task.

The two crucial factors here are: 1) the polycentric nature of the psyche, and 2) the conscious/imaginative work of bridge-building between these various psychic centers of gravity, or autonomous complexes. Before exploring these two factors, let us first take a look at the psychologically incomplete or ignorant standpoints of mentally ill and monolithically ego-centric persons who, together, vastly outnumber exemplars of the psychologically initiated consciousness I seek, by and by, to describe.

The mentally ill person who suffers from a splintered or disassociated psyche is the victim of a weak and easily “possessed” (or overshadowed) ego, so that the autonomous complexes, always lurking below the surface of the ego-platform, can easily break through that thin membrane and act out or speak out in ways that are clearly at odds with the ‘level-headed’ aims and apparent interests of the ‘rational’ ego. In other words, the ego of the dissociated person – as weak and uneducated (about itself and about the polycentric psyche) as it is – is easily overpowered and reduced to a mere puppet of these unconscious complexes over which it has little or no control. We see such cases of possession every day (in milder form) when family members, co-workers, spouses, or we, ourselves, succumb to irrational fits of rage, terror, jealousy, euphoria, romantic enchantment, etc. The difference between these ordinary cases and those of the mentally ill is a difference in degree, but not in kind. The difference lies in the degree of strength, stability, and self-knowledge achieved by the victim of his/her unconscious complexes and affects.

Those persons, on the other hand, who have invested all or most of their time and effort in the cultivation and defense of the ego against intrapsychic powers and influences suffer from a very different set of problems. Such persons have, in a sense, deified the ego – and reified it in the bargain – so that, for them, the psyche as a whole is disastrously reduced to the much narrower terms and conditions of individual ego-consciousness. For them, the cohesiveness, heroic strength, and authority of the personal ego constitute the supreme priority. Such persons often scoff at the suggestion that autonomous (unconscious) complexes and powers exist and/or exercise ultimate sovereignty over the ego. Such skeptics and scoffers regard those persons who subscribe to such beliefs – in the transpersonal psychic forces and factors – with muted contempt or with patronizing indulgence, as Jocasta regards those who foolishly believe in prophecies in Oedipus Tyrannus. But, in almost every case, what we uncover behind the egocentrist’s contempt and “superior” disdain is paralyzing terror of the very forces and factors they deny and disdain.

How, then, should we begin to describe the optimal (or psychologically enlightened) standpoint – one that avoids (by transcendence?) the two problematic standpoints I have just sketched? The ideal standpoint would have to straddle in between the flaccid, impotent extreme of the undeveloped ego, on the one side, and the fear-driven arrogance of God-like egotism, on the other. If we wanted to couch the problem in Taoist terms, we might say that wisdom consists in navigating successfully between “the Firm and the Yielding.”

Another way to frame this archetypal polarity between the rival demands of ‘heroic’ ego and the larger, enfolding psyche is to invoke the alchemical terms “solve et coagula” (dissolve and coagulate). The ego rises up from the oceanic psyche like a volcanic island, eventually returning to that great matrix – and to the undifferentiated state of its origins – but during that brief interim, a human life, a kind of dialogue or dialectic is possible between ego and unconscious. The fluidic, polycentric, “imaginal” psyche tends to have a generally dissolving effect upon the structures and materials out of which the ego-complex is constructed. For this reason, the strength and cohesiveness of the ego depends on the assertion of effort – or the personal will – as a protective measure against weakening and dissolution. A balanced or healthy ego, therefore, gravitates instinctively towards homeostasis or equilibrium between solidity and fluidity, while our problematic cases lose this precarious balance. The extreme (or pathological) egotist instinctively dreads the dissolving waters of psyche (and, by extension, by the fluidic imagination, the native language of psyche), while the impotent or rootless ego is forever the helpless plaything of whatever complex or affect seizes possession of it.

To illustrate these various standpoints by means of historical examples, we can look at Jesus and Socrates, on one end, and Nietzsche and Freud on the other, with Jung acting as a moderating figure in between the two sides. Socrates’ dialectical questioning operated like a solvent or mild corrosive upon the often-inflated egos of his interlocutors (on the level of intellect), while Jesus’ teachings and humble example may be seen as a solvent on the heart level. Freud and Nietzsche, and their different ways, were great coagulators and enrichers of the ego as a bulwark against the id or Dionysian disintegration (to which Nietzsche eventually succumbed). Jung, as champion of the dialectic between ego and unconscious (individuation), recognized the crucial importance of a strong and psychologically/imaginatively enlightened ego in following “the middle way” between the two undesirable extremes of egocentrism and ego-dissolution.

Addendum: it is tempting to draw a connection between pessimism and over-developed/inflated egotism – despite its displays of ruggedness and occasional exuberance. Pessimism is conspicuous and Freud and implicit in Nietzsche’s stridency, despite all his coaching on the importance of “cheerfulness.” There is little in or about Nietzsche’s tone(s) or content that can legitimately be called cheerful or joyous, let alone optimistic, when it comes to the human situation. Again, Jung’s more moderate (and moderating) example serves well: generally speaking, he is measured and balanced in his tone – neither unduly pessimistic nor excessively hopeful about the human condition – but guardedly optimistic.


Seeds and Deeds (3/10/17)

In the stillest and quietest moments of meditation, the entire nexus or intricate array of personal ties and more or less defined affiliations in which I am presently involved dissolve into nothingness. During these brief, blissful moments, all the cords of connection relax and drop into a bottomless well. Duties, obligations, commitments, desires, antagonisms, and ambivalences cease to mean anything or to exert any claims upon my soul during such moments. This liberating sense of being disburdened of these bonds of attachment, aversion, and duty does not spring from exasperation or contempt, hatred or disgust. Instead, it appears to be rooted in a mysterious but indisputable faith that everything and everyone in my life will carry on without significant deviation or disruption with or without my active involvement. The seeds of our ultimate unfoldment or fate, it would seem, are not altered in their essence by the soil and climate conditions into which they are planted. Whether and how fully the seeds mature is, of course, affected by these extrinsic factors – but in the deepest meditation it is the seed-essences we zero in on – the eternal images that appear in, but are not affected by, time, space, matter, and causality.

And then, as my serenely detached meditative state succumbs to the alluring siren song of “Paul in the world,” I watch myself plugging back into those “parts” I play for others on the stage where seeds open and display their inner necessity, as does mine. But each time I reenter Paul and his many parts it is with ever-deepening irony. Would it surprise anyone if I were to say that with this infusion of irony – or double-mindedness – the playing of my parts becomes more genuine, truer to life, and surcharged with the electricity generated by that ironical tension? Here, perhaps as well as anywhere, we are granted a glimpse of the subtle marriage between the richest meaning and strangeness. We know we have stumbled upon truth when we recognize that we are in the presence of something strange – or “strangely familiar,” if you prefer sugar in your coffee. That is why we shiver in the presence of truth. It is shocking and grounding all at once.


Coniunctio (6/24/14)

I detect a kind of trap in the Advaita path—a trap in which it is easy to become ensnared by those seekers it frequently attracts—namely, persons who want direct results right away. (John Grimes, in his last email to me, says ‘It is true that I am not interested in psychological integration and wholeness. Eventually, even if one were to achieve that, one would still have to discover the Self. As Ramana Maharshi said, ‘Why not go straight to the Self?’)

Why would Nisargadatta bother speaking about ‘ripeness’ and ‘readiness’ for realization if there were no process of maturation—of progressive unfoldment—behind such ripeness, which, as he repeatedly insists, is a crucial factor, and by no means trivial? I am perfectly happy to accept the idea of accelerated development—where the seeker does all he/she can to provide optimal conditions for growth and maturation—the ripening of the understanding and the purification of the spiritual will. But I have trouble with the idea of leaping over or by-passing stages that I suspect are unavoidable in the ‘letting go’ process—the path of return.

I am aware that—as John Grimes has informed me—there is one school of Advaitins (called Vivarana) who recognize no teacher, no student, no teachings –just the one Self—while all else is a time/space-based illusion. The other school—Bhamati—allows for levels of understanding, development, etc., as I am proposing here. Theoretically, at least, I can grasp the idea that if I were able, somehow, to find my way (or catapult myself) into an experience of non-duality, beyond time and space, mind and ego, I would instantaneously experience the transcendence of all ‘lower’ stages. Such stages of development or levels of understanding suddenly become irrelevant as soon as we transcend time and ordinary consciousness—for we are at the goal. The bridge is no longer of any use or value to us once we’ve crossed over.

I have known such experiences—even if they were fleeting—and it is precisely because I have been ‘graced’ with such unearthly inner experiences that I have spent so much time and effort pursuing and assimilating and attempting to put into practice the spiritual teachings that speak to my innermost depths.

I spoke previously of having followed Jung’s method of employing the ‘transcendent function’ as a way to bridge the gap between ‘the path of individuation’ and that of liberation. What, in more precise terms, did I mean? I realize now that I might just as aptly described the process in Hegelian terms (thesis collides with antithesis, out of which struggle emerges a new synthesis—or bridge).

At any event, the expansive and deepening process got started when I took notice of some rather glaring differences between Jung’s individuation (psychological enrichment, development, and integration) and Ramana Maharshi’s Advaita (transcendence of mind, or imagination—letting go of, rather than cultivation of, the personality).

The first stage of the work involved a radical, articulate differentiation (separatio) of the two paths. These would be purified (calcined, sublimated?) into the two poles in the middle of which I would thereafter psychically situate myself—exposing myself to the tension produced by their natural opposition. The stronger the charge generated by the opposed poles, the deeper and wider would be the synthetic perspectives and bridge-ideas produced out of their coupling. The greater their purification/clarification, the stronger the charge.

The aim during this ‘pregnancy’ or ‘gestation’ phase of the work was to remain psychically situated in the womb of creative tension, where I was obliged to patiently nurse the quarter- or half- or three-quarters-formed ‘child’ of this intense union of opposites. Had I been less experienced in this sort of inner work—like a first-time mother instead of a mother of five (or is it six??)—I would have had more difficulty ‘relaxing into’ the strange transformation my psyche was undergoing. I might have become ‘freaked out’—inducing a miscarriage or prompting a desperate abortion. At the very least, I would have gotten in the way of—rather than cooperate wisely with—the natural process. Or perhaps I should say ‘the process that is nature plus art,’ following the alchemists, who—in the more enlightened cases—were up to much the same thing—turning ‘shit’ into ‘gold’—turning flagellating sperms and ovulating eggs into divine children.

A child, being the product of both father and mother, takes something essential from both, of course. But these essential contributions from both parents (or poles?) do not remain un-modified or un-transformed in the child. And just as the child is not—and can never be—simply reducible to father or mother[1], so the synthetic ‘bridge-ideas’ born of the creative strife—say, between psychological wholeness and spiritual liberation—are never simply reducible to the terms of one side or the other. It is for this reason that I firmly resisted the temptation to dissolve Jung into Ramana’s Advaita or to ‘psychologize’ Ramana as a mere avoider or escaper of psychological responsibility and unfoldment. Although they missed the opportunity to meet face to face in 1937 when Jung ducked out of an intended visit to Tiruvannamalai, I like to believe that I am bringing about a post-mortem rendezvous between the ‘Sage of Kusnacht’ and the Saint of Arunachala here at 2046 Sul Ross, apt. 4, in 2014.

[1] Aristotle, brilliant nincompoop that he was, taught that the mother made no real contribution to the child but was merely an obliging oven for Daddy’s little dough-ball to bake in!


Topsy-Turvy (1/26/13)

Commonsense may roughly be defined as that mental outlook—or set of bearings—that has come to accommodating terms with human life as it is ordinarily experienced. Turning this around, we might say that in obeying the dictates of commonsense, we place ourselves in a better position to stay aligned, mentally, with the normal way of doing and evaluating things in our world of communal human experience. Genuine spiritual enlightenment, on the other hand, consists for the most part in liberating the mind and the heart from exclusive confinement within these ordinary horizons. It is therefore profoundly subversive of ‘commonsense’ and certainly not a further development of it. Spiritual illumination turns the ordinary world of commonsense experience inside out, and thus it bears perhaps more than a superficial resemblance to madness—at least from the commonsense perspective. Of course, the same holds in reverse: from the authentically ‘awakened’ perspective, ordinary human consciousness appears to be a form of delusional insanity, or more precisely, mental blindness, which amounts to more or less the same thing. But when practically everyone within a society is unwittingly blind or mad, blindness and madness are acknowledged in only the most hopeless and extreme cases. In everyone else, they go unnoticed and constitute the normal state of affairs.

Ordinary language use and practical reason, in its everyday application, help to prop up the commonsense notions and values of blind (because unreflective and information-obsessed) ordinary human consciousness. Ordinary language use and pragmatic reasoning are abstract distillations or, if you like, highly condensed summaries of the repeated experiences of our ancestors—a mixed bag, to say the least! Little wonder, then, that all genuine sages and persons of exceptional insight have been unanimous in their wariness towards (if not their denunciation of) ordinary (or popular) language use and the ‘commonsense’ perspective that everyday language use and uncritically imbibed traditional ideas protect and serve. This is why such heterodox figures are generally misunderstood and not infrequently reviled—at least while they are still alive. They arouse suspicion and anger when they challenge the otherwise blind authority of commonsense and revered tradition, both of which purchase their cherished stability and precarious inviolability at the expense of truly subtle insight, which almost invariably explodes and subverts the fixed dogmas cherished by MOST pastors and ALL sheep.

The mulish conservatism of many traditional values and commonsensical norms reflects the even deeper conservatism of our inherited human instincts. The paradoxical words and unorthodox perspectives espoused by mentally liberated sages constitute a direct assault upon the sovereignty of the sanctified ignorance and spiritual vapidity that are bound up with ‘collective ideas’ and ‘practical reason.’   It should be noted that these crude collective notions and the light of practical reason pertain almost exclusively to the ‘common’ world of everyday, literal experience. As such, they have no more legitimate place or jurisdiction in the imaginal and spiritual dimensions of human experience than do Newton’s laws of mechanics. This may have been what Jesus was talking about when he announced that he did not come to bring peace, but that he brought a sword. Thus, authentic spiritual experience is nothing if it is not subversive of collective assumptions and mass values, while ordinary religious belief has traditionally been one of the principal adhesives holding these assumptions and values together. This is perhaps what Carl Jung had in mind when he wrote: ‘Religion is a defense against the experience of God.’

The ordinary community of believers (in unexamined values and opinions passed down to them from their often equally blinkered, if well-meaning forebears) misuses these empty formulas to keep itself firmly attached to the surface layer of experience. Those persons who are driven to look deeper into these inherited notions are in a better position to see through their surface meaning. Such ‘unmaskers’ are often lured (or perilously pulled) into that terra incognita where transformative experiences can, at last, be had. Here they are shocked to discover that all they’ve learned up on the surface is pretty thin gruel and that the pleasures, the inflated sense of security and justice, and even the sense of ‘community’ enjoyed by the surface-clingers are similarly of little real value and assistance in this new territory. On every front within, lines are being drawn and choices are being forced upon him that will dramatically affect the course and quality of his life.

As he becomes acclimated to these dark and unpopulated depths, his destiny is clinched. There will be no return (or regression) to ordinary life experience upon the surface except as a sobering emissary from below. But first, he must learn as much as he can about the danger-and-wonder-packed territory he has entered, so he tries to settle down and learn something. In order to avoid having his connection with the surface world completely severed, he keeps one foot in that realm and one below. This dual focus (or allegiance) stretches him almost to the snapping point at first, but by and by he acquires the requisite elasticity to maintain this dual citizenship. The genuine spiritual seeker willingly weans himself from all merely mundane pleasures, honors, and mental palliatives. Such ‘sacrifices’ are voluntarily enjoined because his primary allegiance has shifted to the mystery that has opened itself up to him. It presents him with novel opportunities for inner experience—opportunities for which he increasingly feels himself fatefully called.

In effect, he first breaks the spell of enchantment that the ordinary commonsense perspective has exercised over him, and then—as mentioned above—he gradually acclimates and establishes himself in the newly opened arena of experience. This realm is ‘transcendent’ from the comparatively cramped horizons of ordinary literalistic and ultimately reductive commonsense. Gradually, in measured steps, he returns to the surface world with its variously contented and discontented prisoners. He ‘conforms,’ but only ironically and apparently, to the terms and conditions of life on the oxygen-poor, spiritually anemic surface. He must make regular ‘return trips’ to the depths (through daily meditation) in order to restore the vitality and centeredness that are partially weakened in his surface dealings. His words and the example of his life are chiefly intended not for the many, but for the few, since the fitness and the willingness to let go of the common world for the sake of entrance into the mysterious inner world are not lavishly distributed.

To the happily befuddled or thoroughly resigned prisoners of the commonsense realm of experience, his words are, at best, clever and perplexing oddities—objects of their gentle or malicious mockery. Or, they are regarded as no more than plain old poppycock. The self-authorized teacher, returning from his initiatory experiences in the inner world, who fails to acknowledge this fundamental unsuitableness of his teachings for the many will come to a sad, but avoidable, end. He should never expect miracles to happen, no matter how powerful and compelling his own inner vision may be. He must adjust his expectations (about others) to the actual state of their spiritual maturity and not to his own quite natural longings for a morally and spiritually regenerated humanity. He rightly understands that by ‘humanity’ what is meant is a crisis zone of possible transformation. ‘Humanity,’ therefore, is not an end in itself, but a bridge or passageway from intelligent animality to an enlightened spiritual condition.

The transformation is brought about by fire—by gradually burning away all those gross and subtle attachments that bind consciousness to its vehicles—physical, emotional, and intellectual. The aim of his teachings is certainly not to encourage complacency or resignation to this imprisoned state (which is the direct and inevitable result of lingering attachments at all levels). Rather, it is to inspire a healthy mistrust of appearances, of received opinions, and of all mass values that one has not forged within the crucible of one’s own direct experience and prolonged reflection. Without the help of this salubriously corrosive doubt—and without the continual self-examination that it underpins—there is little chance of recovering from the blindness, the torpor, the gnawing anxiety, and the isolation that ultimately assail the powerful, self-interested ego. These are extremely difficult choices, to be sure, but they are choices all the same. The will is never completely determined by extrinsic factors and bad habits—although these do exert a formidable influence that can often seem invincible.

Success in turning things around (from literal-mundane to metaphorical-imaginal orientation) requires patient, disciplined defiance of all that is comfortingly familiar, sentimentally appealing, intoxicating, and taken for granted. Enduring transformation does not—and should not—occur hastily, but gradually, watchfully, and as sure-footedly as circumstances, inner resources, and education allow. The aim is a thorough overhauling and reorientation of the life—and it goes without saying that such transformation is by no means merely an intellectual revolution. Theoretical materials and intellectual development can certainly be of valuable assistance in guiding, inspiring, and even stabilizing the spiritual will, but ultimately these are no more than training wheels on a bicycle which must eventually be ridden without their help.